Is Mack ready for the AFC North?

April, 29, 2009
4/29/09
12:30
PM ET
 
  Dave Stephenson/Icon/SMI
  Cleveland spent its first-round draft pick on California center Alex Mack.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

BEREA, Ohio -- There are two primary reasons center Alex Mack became the first pick of the Eric Mangini era with the Cleveland Browns.

Casey Hampton is one reason; Haloti Ngata is the other.

As the Browns try to play catch-up in the AFC North, they must first close the gap in the trenches with the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and AFC rival Baltimore. Cleveland was 0-4 against those two teams last season, losing by a combined score of 106-43, primarily because they were physically manhandled on offense.

Realizing this, the new regime in Cleveland had no reservations making a center its signature pick of the 2009 NFL draft. Mack was widely regarded as the best interior lineman available. The Browns coveted him so much that they opted to trade out of the No. 5 overall pick, then trade two more times before taking the University of California product at No. 21 -- a little higher than most projected.

If Mack begins his pro career by pushing around huge 3-4 nose tackles such as Ngata and Hampton next season and instantly brings smashmouth football back to Cleveland, no one will care how early he was picked.

"I pride myself at being an aggressive run blocker," said Mack, who is listed as 6 feet 4, 311 pounds. "I think that's a fun thing to do when you get to run the ball and really get to impose your will on a defense."

Substance over style

Past drafts of former general manager Phil Savage and former coach Romeo Crennel were often celebrated. The first-round picks were flashy selections, such as receiver Braylon Edwards (2005), athletic outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (2006) and quarterback Brady Quinn (2007). It turned out Cleveland's best draft pick under Savage was left tackle Joe Thomas in 2007, which wasn't nearly as flashy as other first-rounders.

Mack Attack
Here is the stiff competition Alex Mack and Cleveland's offense have to face in the AFC North:
Team Def. Rank Vs. Run Vs. Pass W-L-T
*Pittsburgh 1 2 1 12-4-0
Baltimore  2 3 2 11-5-0
Cincinnati 12 21 15 4-11-1
*Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII over the Arizona Cardinals.
The initial reaction to Cleveland's latest draft has been mixed, because there are no big names joining the team.

The Browns passed on a plethora of well-known prospects on the first day such as USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree and later USC linebackers Clay Matthews and Rey Maualuga to take players like Mack, Ohio State receiver Brian Robiskie and Hawaii defensive end/linebacker David Veikune. The Browns say these draft picks fit the core values of smart, tough, hard-working players Mangini wants on his team.

Cleveland hopes Mack fits a similar mold as 2007 pick Thomas, focusing more on substance, not style.

"There was a consensus on [Mack] throughout the whole process, the February meetings, the workouts, the April meetings," Browns first-year general manager George Kokinis said. "There was a consensus on this player that this guy was the best center. He fit what we wanted to do. He's tough, he's an academic Heisman, he's smart, and he just fits what we believe in."

Changing an ugly trend

Nothing went well for the Browns offensively in 2008.

The Browns were 31st in total offense last season and tied for 30th in scoring. The offensive line, recently considered one of the NFL's best, struggled mightily. Three quarterbacks -- Derek Anderson, Quinn and Ken Dorsey -- s
uffered season-ending injuries, and there was little push up the middle to control the clock or pace of the game.

Three of the four AFC North teams play the 3-4 defense, which focuses on stuffing the center with a huge nose tackle and confusing him by bringing extra pass-rushers from different angles. The Cincinnati Bengals run a traditional 4-3 defense, but they're also aggressive and have a pair of big defensive tackles in Domata Peko and Tank Johnson. Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati were ranked in the top 12 defensively.

That's where Mack comes in.

The Browns feel it's going to take a combination of intelligence and toughness to turn the corner in this physical division. In college, Mack led a complex offense at Cal and also received the Draddy Trophy, which is given to the college player with the best combination of athletics, academic achievement and community service.

Mack also was thoroughly tested by Mangini on football terminology before he was drafted.

"The way that you measure intelligence isn't just in terms of academics, although that's somewhat of an indicator, but we also go through a process of what is their football intelligence," Mangini said. "That comes through interviews, some more extensive than others, background in terms of how they worked for the coaching staff and things like that. Really for us, [it's] trying to find as many guys that meet those characteristics in addition to what they can do on the field."

Mack was on the radar of a lot of teams, including the Steelers and Bengals within the division. He was projected to go in the range of 25 to 40 in the draft but likes the fact the Browns made him a priority.

"I got a pretty unanimous response from most teams, 'We really like you ... but we're just not sure we can take you,'" Mack said. "So I'm happy to be at a team that took a lot of initiative and really wants me."

Just moments into his first press conference with the Browns Sunday, Mack said he was going to head upstairs and begin studying the new offense. That sounds like Mangini's type of player.

The Browns hope Mack's smarts, strength and athleticism translates on the field and helps signal a shift of power in the AFC North -- both literally and figuratively.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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AFC NORTH SCOREBOARD